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Ukrainian children head back to school in a country marked by war


Ukraine's new school year begins today in the middle of a war. About a fourth of schools will start in person. The rest will attempt the year online. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has the story from a school in Kharkiv.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Kindergarten No. 323 sits among a number of residential buildings in the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, close to the border with Russia. Instead of students outside, there are city workers cleaning the debris left from Russian shelling that hit and damaged the school this week. The head of school, Yana Tsyhanenko, shows us the damage.

YANA TSYHANENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Nearly all the windows are broken, so glass is everywhere. The brightly colored stairs that lead to the first classroom are destroyed.

TSYHANENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Tsyhanenko points to the top step, which is stained with blood. When the building was hit, two teachers' assistants happened to be taking out the trash. They're both in the hospital. Tsyhanenko was inside when the shelling hit this week. This fall, students won't be here in person, but she and other teachers - they've been coming in each day to get their classrooms ready. It's what they do every August. In Ukraine, the first day of school is a big day. It's called the Day of Knowledge, and it's usually celebrated with balloons, concerts and special festivities.

TSYHANENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It's like a second new year for teachers," Tsyhanenko jokes.

TSYHANENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "But this year, the feeling is of stolen happiness," she says. Away from the side of the kindergarten building that was hit, she walks us through the pristine classrooms. The halls are painted in pastels, purple and pink and yellow. The shelves are filled with books and toys. There's little beds for naptime. They're made up with small stuffed animals on each pillow. Before the war, this school had more than 300 students, ages 2 through 6. Tsyhanenko picks up a yearbook and looks through it.

TSYHANENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "We had a wonderful school," she says. Only 14 of those students remain in Kharkiv. The rest are scattered around Ukraine and the world.

TSYHANENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Kindergartens are not supposed to be empty," she says. "They should be filled with laughter, with the sound of little feet running down the hallway." In some places, like the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin, schools are back in person. These are places that saw a lot of devastation in the early parts of the war, and rebuilding there has been swift. The start of the school year has a note of defiance and celebration. But in cities like Kharkiv, where there is still daily shelling and missile strikes, the state-run schools will be online.

TSYHANENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: The attack here at Kindergarten 323 has confirmed for Tsyhanenko that that's the right decision. Because the city is so close to Russia, there's only a few minutes between the air raid sirens and an explosion. Even if a school had a shelter, there wouldn't be enough time to get children down there. We walk to a damaged classroom with glass and debris on the floor, and Tsyhanenko opens up some of the cubbies. They're still filled with the students' belongings - backpacks, sneakers, an extra change of clothes. In one locker, she takes out a piece of art. It's a snowman - the last thing a student made back in February, the day before the invasion.

TSYHANENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "The cubbies are waiting for them," she says. "We, the teachers, are waiting for them." She's told the children that they'll rebuild. She doesn't want them to worry. She wants the school to be ready for their return when the war is over. Experts I've talked to have stressed that so many of Ukraine's more than 5 million children have experienced trauma. Teachers throughout the country have been working with psychologists, doing training to better equip them to work with their students. But it's a big challenge, especially when such young kids are online.

TSYHANENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Tsyhanenko's most worried about the social and emotional skills the kids are missing. She and her teachers will be sending video lessons and lists of things for parents to do at home. But there's nothing like in-person school, she says. As she walks us out of the school, her eyes drift to a pink toy truck poking out of the rubble. She starts to tear up.

TSYHANENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It's not the damage to the school that I'm mourning," she says. "It's the destruction of childhood."

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Kharkiv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.